Gov. John Bel Edwards issues call for second special session, 'bold decisions' to close budget gap _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Gov. John Bel Edwards announces that the $70 million in budget savings necessary to close the current year's budget gap left unresolved by the special legislative session will come solely from the Dept. of Health and Hospitals, during a press conference at the State Capitol Thursday afternoon. He's flanked by state budget chief Jay Dardenne, center, and chief of staff Ben Nevers, right. DHH will absorb the cuts with $30 million in savings from expenditures being less than expected, $10 million in efficiencies and $30 million in end-of-year cuts.

Louisiana legislators will get a 30-minute break when the regular session ends June 6 and then have 18 days to sort out a final version of the budget that begins July 1.

Gov. John Bel Edwards on Friday ordered the state Legislature to begin a second special session a half-hour after the regular session ends, so it can consider tax proposals that can be used to bring in new revenue to fill the estimated $600 million gap in the budget. The special session must end by midnight June 23.

“Delaying this special session would only contribute to the problems our state has faced for far too long,” Edwards said in a statement. “I have developed a package of proposals that would specifically address our immediate crisis without threatening the programs that the vast majority of the people of Louisiana consider to be important.

“Now is our chance to make bold decisions that will turn this ship in the right direction. I am confident we will garner the support we need to fund state government in a way that’s worthy of the people of our state.”

State lawmakers increased the sales tax and took other actions in a special session earlier this year that brought in $1.2 billion, but the state’s fiscal analysts say it’s still $600 million short of being able to provide the same level of services that it is currently offering — essentially level funding.

“Very difficult times we are in, trying to find enough funding for everything,” said Sen. Bret Allain, a Franklin Republican who serves on the Senate Finance Committee.

Legislators have to pass a balanced budget — meaning one with the $600 million in cuts — by the regular session’s end, and they are legally barred from raising revenue during the regular session this year.

It’s Edwards’ hope that they will approve measures during the special session to help back-fill that funding before the new budget takes effect, effectively sparing agencies from the impact of cuts. Currently at risk are health care programs, including services for medically fragile children; higher education funding; and funding for the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarships.

“There is no question in my mind that these programs are important, but there is simply no way we can adequately fund these priorities with the revenue currently available,” Edwards said. “No one, especially me, likes raising taxes or implementing painful cuts, but we are in a difficult spot living in the aftermath of years of budget gimmicks and tricks. It is time for all of us to make the tougher, wiser choices now, rather than the easier choices that feel good now but would hurt our state long term.”

Allain and others have said they remain skeptical of the Legislature’s willingness to approve enough changes to reach the $600 million mark in a second special session, which means some cuts still could come after the second special session.

Among the largest revenue-generating items Edwards has included in his call are efforts to change the state’s personal and corporate income tax brackets and limit the itemized deductions from state income taxes that people can claim in excess of their federal tax deductions. Limiting those deductions would make middle- and upper-income taxpayers pay more. Shifting tax brackets also would mean that some people would pay more in taxes.

The change to personal income tax brackets had so little support during the earlier special session that it wasn’t even brought up for a vote on the House floor. The measure would have raised $324 million a year, but Revenue Secretary Kimberly Robinson said how much the administration hopes to raise with this second effort hasn’t been decided yet.

Robert Travis Scott, the president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana and a member of a task force that has been studying the state budget in recent weeks, said he isn’t sure lawmakers will embrace those ideas.

“I don’t see the brackets happening. I don’t see the excess itemized happening. I don’t think the House has the appetite for going after those things when they have a series of other things to go after,” he said. “Clean up and patch up, that’s basically the game.”

The 48-item call also includes more modest proposals, including tax credits and interest on tax rebates.

The call also includes items that are meant to fix issues that have come up involving action taken in the first special session, including taxes newly imposed on charitable donations and admissions to high school athletics events.

Another item was added in response to a Louisiana Supreme Court ruling earlier this month over an obscure sales tax issue that will cost the state and Calcasieu Parish each about $3 million and threatens to cost financially strapped state and local governments tens of millions more. At issue is a type of tax break that the court ruled manufacturing companies can take.

Edwards’ second special session order came less than an hour after a day of emotional testimony in the Senate Finance Committee about the impact of cuts to health care services.

Angela Lorio, a Baton Rouge mom whose disabled son John Paul is one of the children whose health care programs are at risk, admonished lawmakers and said it’s “shameful” that families have to face the threat of services ending every year. The committee room was packed with families with similar stories.

“We’re not getting paid to be here,” Lorio said. “Every time, every one of us.”

Several family members also testified about the threat to funding for adult day health care centers that serve a mostly elderly and ailing population. The centers pick up people from their homes, serve them meals, take them to run errands and go grocery shopping and provide recreational activities.

Linda Billiot told the committee that she has severe arthritis, and her husband suffers from dementia. Neither could cook nor drive and had nowhere else to turn before they received waivers to get into one of the centers.

“I would go days without my prescriptions,” Billiot said, and both of their diets were poor because they couldn’t get to the grocery store regularly.

“The center helps my husband and I remain independently in our home,” she said.

Several people testifying broke down in tears as they relayed their stories to legislators, many of whom were crying as well.

“The priorities have to change when education and health care are on the chopping block year after year after year,” said Sylvia Pearson Chagnard, of the Jefferson Parish Behavior Health Advisory Council. “We’re talking about people dying. It’s unacceptable. It’s inhumane.”

Tyler Bridges, of the Capitol news bureau, contributed to this report. Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.the advocate.com/politicsblog.